One of my favorite pieces of correspondence from the war is a Dec. 2, 2863, letter that George Gordon Meade wrote to his wife in the wake of the Mine Run campaign. The commander of the Army of the Potomac, facing immense political pressure to engage the Army of Northern Virginia in battle, called off an attack at the last moment. I’ve always considered it one of the greatest acts of moral courage of the war. (For more about Meade’s decision, check out a post I wrote last year, “At the Center of Nothing, Meade’s Greatest Moment.”)
Meade fully expected to get sacked for his lack of action, not only because Washington had urged him onward but because his counterpart in the Western Theater, Ulysses S. Grant, had recently scored a major victory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Meade, in contrast, had retreated from Mine Run with nothing to show.
Ever candid with his wife, he poured out his thoughts, along with his account of the campaign, in a long letter home:
(I have added paragraph breaks to improve the readability of the letter but have otherwise left it unedited.)
I expect your wishes will now soon be gratified, and that I shall be relieved from the Army of the Potomac. The facts are briefly these:
On the 26th ultimo I crossed the Rapidan, intending to turn the right flank of General Lee and attack him, or compel him to attack me out of his formidable river entrenchments. I had previously been advised, by deserters and others, that he had commenced a line of works running perpendicular to the river, but only extending a few miles, but which he designed covering his flank, and permitting him to leave the lower fords unguarded. I accordingly made my plans to cross in three columns, to unite at a common point below his entrenchments, and then to advance rapidly and attack him before he could prepare any defenses.
The plan was a good one, but owing to the failure of others to whom its execution was necessarily intrusted, it failed. In the first place, one corps was three hours behind time in arriving at the river, and slow of movement afterwards; which caused a delay of one day, enabled the enemy to advance and check my columns before they united, and finally to concentrate his army in a very formidable position, behind entrenchments almost as strong as those I was making a long detour to avoid.
Again, after I had come up with the enemy, one corps commander reported he had examined a position where there was not the slightest doubt he could carry the enemy’s works, and on his positive and unhesitating judgment, he was given twenty-eight thousand men, and directed to attack the next morning at eight o’clock. At the same time another attack was to be made by fifteen thousand men, at a point where the enemy evidently was not fully prepared. On the eventful morning, just as the attack was about being made, I received a despatch from the officer commanding the twenty-eight thousand men, saying he had changed his opinion, and that the attack on his front was so hopeless, that he had assumed the responsibility of suspending it till further orders were received. This astounding intelligence reached me just ten minutes before the hour of attacking, and barely in time to suspend the other attack, which was a secondary one, and which, even if successful, could not be supported with so large a portion of my force away for the main attack. This lost me another day, during which the enemy so strengthened the point threatened by the secondary attack as to render it nearly as strong as the rest of his line, and to have almost destroyed the before probable chances of success.
Finding no possibility of attacking with hope of success, and power to follow up success, and that the only weak point visible had been strengthened during the delay caused by the change of opinion of a corps commander, I determined not to attempt an assault. I could not move any further around the enemy’s flank, for want of roads, and from the danger at this season of the year of a storm, which would render locomotion, off the prepared roads, a matter of impossibility. After reviewing all the circumstances, notwithstanding my most earnest desire to give battle, and in the full consciousness of the fact that my failure to do so was certain personal ruin, I, having come to the conclusion that an attack could not be successful, determined to, and did, withdraw the army.
I am fully aware it will be said I did wrong in deciding this question by reasoning, and that I ought to have tried, and then a failure would have been evidence of my good judgment; but I trust I have too much reputation as a general to be obliged to encounter certain defeat, in order to prove that victory was not possible. Political considerations will, however, enter largely into the decision, and the failure of the Army of the Potomac to do anything, at this moment, will be considered of vital consequence, and if I can be held responsible for this failure, I will be removed to prove that I am. I therefore consider my fate as settled; but as I have told you before, I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and wilfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. It was my deliberate judgment that I ought not to attack; I acted on that judgment, and I am willing to stand or fall by it at all hazards.
I shall write to the President, giving him a clear statement of the case, and endeavoring to free his action as much as possible, by assuming myself all the responsibility. I fed of course greatly disappointed; a little more good fortune, and I should have met with brilliant success. As it is, my conscience is clear. I did I the best I could. If I had thought there was any reasonable degree of probability of success, I would have attacked. I did not think so; on the contrary, believed it would result in a useless and criminal slaughter of brave men, and might result in serious disaster to the army. I determined not to attack, no other movements were practicable, and I withdrew.
There will be a great howl all over the country. Letter writers and politicians will denounce me. It will be proved as clear as the light of day, that an attack was perfectly practicable, and that everyone, except myself, in the army, particularly the soldiers, was dying for it, and that I had some mysterious object in view, either in connection with politics, or stock-jobbing, or something else about as foreign to my thoughts, and finally the Administration will be obliged to yield to popular clamor and discard me. For all this I am prepared, fortified as I said before by a clear conscience, and the conviction that I have acted from a high sense of duty, to myself as a soldier, to my men as their general, and to my country and its cause, as the agent having its vital interests solemnly entrusted to me, which I have no right wantonly to play with and to jeopardize, either for my own personal benefit, or to satisfy the demands of popular clamor, or interested politicians.
George [Meade’s son, working as a staff officer] was sent with one of the messages to suspend the attack; his horse fell with him, he was a little bruised and cut about the eye, but nothing serious.
From The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, 156-9.